1st of April – April Fool’s Day

St Melito, Bishop of Sardis, in Lydia, 2d century. St Hugh, Bishop of Grenoble, 1132. St Gilbert, Bishop of Caithness, in Scotland, 1240.

Born. – Charles de St Evremond, 1613, St Denis le Gât; Solomon Gesner, painter and poet, author of ‘The Death of Abel,’ 1730, Zurich
Died. – Sultan Timur (Tamerlane), conqueror of Persia, &c., 1405; Robert III., King of Scots, 1406, Paisley; Sigismund I., King of Poland, 1548; Jean Baptiste Thiers, miscellaneous writer, 1702.


It was not until after the death of Surtees in 1835, that any discovery was made of his literary imposture. Sir Walter Scott , upon whom it was practised, had died three years earlier, without becoming aware of the deception. Scott had published three editions of his Border Minstrelsy, when, in 1806, he received a letter from Mr Surtees (a stranger to him), containing remarks upon some of the ballads composing that work. Scott sent a cordial answer, and by and by there came from Mr Surtees, a professedly old ballad ‘on a feud between the Ridleys and the Featherstones,’ which he professed to have taken down from the recitation of an old woman on Alston Moor. It is, to the apprehension of the writer of this article, a production as coarse as it is wild and incoherent; but it was accompanied by historical notes calculated to authenticate it as a narrative of actual events, and Scott, who was then full of excitement about ballads in general, did not pause to criticise it rigorously. he at once accepted it as a genuine relic of antiquity – introduced a passage of it in Marmion, and inserted it entire in the next edition of his Minstrelsy. 

Supposing a person generally truthful to have been for once tempted to practise a deception like this, one would have expected him, on finding it successful, to be filled with a concern he had never anticipated, wishful to repair the error, and, above all, determined to commit no more such mistakes. Contrary to all this, we find Mr Surtees in the very next year passing off another ballad of his own making upon the unsuspicious friend whose confidence he had gained. In a letter, dated the 28th of February in that year, he proceeds to say: 

   ‘I add a ballad of Lord Ewrie, apparently a song of gratulation on his elevation to the peerage, which I took by recitation from a very aged person, Rose Smith, of Bishop Middleham, æt. 91, whose husband’s father and two brothers were killed in the Rebellion of 1715. I was interrogating her for Jacobite songs, and instead acquired Lord Ewrie. The person intended is William Lore Eure,’ &c. 

In this, as in the former case, he added a number of historical notes to support the deception, and Scott did not hesitate in putting Lord Ewrie in a false character before the world in the next edition of his Border Minstrelsy. This, however, was not all. Tempted, apparently, by the very faith which Scott had in his veracity, he played off yet a third imposture. 

There is, in the later editions of the Minstrelsy, a ballad of very vigorous diction, entitled Barthram’s Dirge, beginning: 

‘They shot him dead on the Nine-stone Rig, 
      Beside the Headless Cross; 
And they left him lying in his blood, 
      the moor and moss.’ 

The editor states that it was obtained from the recitation of an old woman by his ‘obliging friend’ Mr Surtees, who communicated it to him, with only a few missing lines replaced by himself.,, as indicated by brackets, were merely designed as a piece of apparent candour, the better to blind the editor to the general falsehood of the story. When we turn to the letter, in which Surtees sent the ballad to Scott, we obtain a good notion of the plausible way in which these tricks were framed:  

 ‘The following romantic fragment,’ says Surtees, ‘(which I have no further meddled with than to fill up a hemistich, and complete rhyme and metre), I have from the imperfect recitation of Ann Douglas, a withered crone who weeded in my garden: 

“They shot him dead on the Nine-stone Rig,” &c.

 I have no local reference to the above. The name of Bartram bids fair for a Northumbrian hero; but the style is, I think, superior to our Northumbrian ditties, and more like the Scotch. There is a place called Headless Cross, I think, in old maps, near Elsdon, in Northumberland; but this is too vague to found any idea upon.’ – Letter of November 9, 1809. 

Thus, we see the deceptions of the learned historian of Durham were carefully planned, and very coolly carried out. There was always the simple crone to recite the ballad. Quotations from old wills and genealogies established the existence of the persons figuring in the recital. And, when necessary, an affectation was made of supplying missing links in modern language. A friendship was established with the greatest literary man of his age on the strength of these pretended services. Scott was not only misled himself, but he was induced to mislead others. The imposter looked coolly on, as, from day to day, his too trusting friend was allowed to introduce into his book fictitious representations, calculated, when detected, to take away its credit. It is difficult to understand how the person so acting should be, in the ordinary affairs of life, honourable and upright. But it was so. We are left no room to doubt that Mr Robert Surtees was faithful in his own historical narrations, and wholly above mendacity for a sordid or cowardly purpose. It was simply this – that men of honourable principles have heretofore had but imperfect ideas of the obligation to speak the truth in the affairs of ancient traditionary literature – we might almost say, of literature generally. 

If they judged aright, they would see that the natural consequence of deceptions regarding professedly old ballads is to create and justify doubts regarding all articles of the kind. Seeing that one so well skilled in such matters as Scott was deceived in at least three instances, how shall we put trust in a single other case where he states that a ballad was taken down for him from popular recitation? A whole series of his legends were professedly obtained from a Mrs Brown of Falkland; another series from a Mrs Arnot of Arbroath: what guarantee have we that these were not female Surteeses? How rapidly would belief extend in cases where it was justified, if there were no liars and impostors! Every instance of deception sensibly dashes faith; and not even the slightest departure from truth can be practised without consequences of indefinite mischief.


The 1st of April, of all the days in the year, enjoys a character of its own, in as far as it, and it alone, is consecrated to practical joking. On this day it becomes the business of a vast number of people, especially the younger sort, to practise innocent impostures upon their unsuspicious neighbours, by way of making them what in France are called poisson d’Avril, and with us April fools. Thus a knowing boy will despatch a younger brother to see a public statue descend from its pedestal at a particular appointed hour. A crew of giggling servants-maids will get hold of some simple swain, and send him to a bookseller’s shop for the History of Eve’s Grandmother, or to a chemist’s for a pennyworth of pigeon’s milk, or to the cobbler’s for a little strap oil, in which last case the messenger secures a hearty application of the strap to his shoulders, and is sent home in a state of bewilderment as to what the affair means. The urchins in the kennel make a sport of calling to some passing beau to look to his coat-skirts; when he either finds them with a piece of paper pinned to them or not; in either of which cases he is saluted as an April fool. A waggish young lady, aware that her dearest friend Eliza Louisa has a rather empty-headed youth dangling after her with little encouragement, will send him a billet, appointing him to call upon Eliza Louisa at a particular hour, when instead of a welcome, he finds himself treated as an intruder, and by and by discovers that he has not advanced his reputation for sagacity or the general prospects of his suit. The great object is to catch some person off his guard, to pass off upon him, as a simple fact, something barely possible, and which has no truth in it; to impose upon him, so as to induce him to go into positions of absurdity, in the eye of a laughing circle of bystanders. Of course, for successful April fooling, it is necessary to have some considerable degree of coolness and face; as also some tact whereby to know in what direction the victim is most ready to be imposed upon by his own tendencies of belief. It may be remarked, that a large proportion of the business is effected before and about the time of breakfast, while as yet few have had occasion to remember what day of the year it is, and before a single victimisation has warned people of their danger. 


What compound is to simple addition, so is Scotch to English April fooling. In the northern part of the island, they are not content to make a neighbour believe some single piece of absurdity. There, the object being, we shall say, to befool simple Andrew Thomson, Wag No. 1 sends him away with a letter to a friend two miles off, professedly asking for some useful information, or requesting a loan of some article, but in reality containing only the words: 

‘This is the first day of April,
Hunt the gowk another mile.’

Wag No 2., catching up the idea of his correspondent, tells Andrew with a grave face that it is not in his power, &c.; but if he will go with another note to such a person, he will get what is wanted. Off Andrew trudges with this second note to Wag No. 3, wo treats him in the same manner; and so on he goes, till some one of the series, taking pity on him, hints the trick that has been practised upon him. A successful affair of this kind will keep rustic society in merriment for a week, during which honest Andrew Thomson hardly can shew his face. The Scotch employ the term gowk (which is properly a cuckoo) to express a fool in general, but more especially an April fool, and among them the practice above described is called hunting the gowk

Sometimes the opportunity is taken by ultra-jocular persons to carry out some extensive hoax upon society. For example, in March 1860, a vast multitude of people received through the post a card having the following inscription, with a seal marked by an inverted sixpence at one of the angles, thus having to superficial observation an official appearance: ‘Tower of London. – Admit the Bearer and Friend to view the Annual Ceremony of Washing the White Lions, on Sunday, April 1st, 1860. Admitted only at the White Gate. It is particularly requested that no gratuities be given to the Wardens or their Assistants.’ The trick is said to have been highly successful. Cabs were rattling about Tower Hill all that Sunday morning, vainly endeavouring to discover the White Gate. 

It is the more remarkable that any such trick should have succeeded, when we reflect how identified the 1st of April has become with the idea of imposture and unreality. So much is this the case, that if one were about to be married, or to launch some new and speculative proposition or enterprise, one would hesitate to select April 1st for the purpose. On the other hand, if one had to issue a mock document of any kind with the desire of its being accepted in its proper character, he could not better insure the joke being seen than by dating it the 1st of April. 

The literature of the last century (18th), from the Spectator downwards, has many allusions to April fooling; no references to it in our earlier literature have as yet been pointed out. English antiquaries appear unable to trace the origin of the custom, or to say how long it has existed among us. In the Catholic Church, there was the Feast of the Ass on the Twelfth Day, and various mummings about Christmas; but April fooling stands apart from these dates. There is but one plausible-looking suggestion from Mr Pegge, to the effect that, the 25th of March being, in one respect, New Year’s Day, the 1st of April was its octave, and the termination of its celebrations; but this idea is not very satisfactory. There is much more importance in the fact, that the Hindoos have, in their Huli, which terminates with the 31st of March, a precisely similar festival, during which the great aim is to send persons away with messages to ideal individuals, or individuals sure to be from home, and enjoy a laugh at their disappointment. To find the practice so widely prevalent over the earth, and with so near a coincidence of day, seems to indicate that it has had a very early origin amongst mankind. 

Swift, in his Journal to Stella, enters under March 31, 1713, that he, Dr Arbuthnot, and Lady Masham had been amusing themselves that evening by contriving ‘a lie for to-morrow.’ A person named Noble had been hanged a few days before. The lie which these three laid their heads together to concoct, was, that Noble had come to life again in the hands of his friends, but was once more laid hold of by the sheriff, and now lay at the Black Swan in Holborn, in the custody of a messenger. ‘We are all,’ says Swift, ‘to send to our friends, to know whether they have heard anything of it, and so we hope it will spread.’ Next day, the learned Dean duly sent his servant to several houses to inquire among the footmen, not letting his own man into the secret. But nothing could be heard of the resuscitation of Mr Noble; whence he concluded that ‘his colleagues did not contribute’ as they ought to have done. 

April fooling is a very noted practice in France, and we get traces of its prevalence there at an earlier period than is the case in England. For instance, it is related that Francis, Duke of Lorraine, and his wife, being in captivity at Nantes, effected their escape in consequence of the attempt being made on the 1st of April. ‘Disguised as peasants, the one bearing a hod on his shoulder, the other carrying a basket of rubbish at her back, they both at an early hour of the day passed through the gates of the city. A woman, having knowledge of their persons, ran to the guard to give notice to the sentry. “April fool!” cried the soldier; and all the guard, to a man, shouted out, “April fool!” beginning with the sergeant in charge of the post. The governor, to whom the story was told as a jest, conceived some suspicion, and ordered the fact to be proved; but it was too late, for in the meantime the duke and his wife were well on their way. The 1st of April saved them.’ 

It is told that a French lady having stolen a watch from a friend’s house on the 1st of April, endeavoured, after detection, to pass off the affair as un poisson d’Avril, an April joke. On denying that the watch was in her possession, a messenger was sent to her apartments, where it was found upon a chimney-piece. ‘Yes,’ said the adroit thief, ‘I think I have made the messenger a fine poisson d’Avril!‘ Then the magistrate said she must be imprisoned till the 1st of April in the ensuing year, comme un poisson d’Avril.

On this Day in Other Sources.

There are a good many mistakes in the common lives of Bishop Gilbert de Moravia.1 It does not appear that he ever held the office of High Chamberlain of Scotland, though he probably administered the Crown property in the north. The story of his having distinguished himself at the Council of Northampton in 1176, and thereby winning a rapid promotion to his bishopric, when his election to the see of Caithness happened forty-seven years after that Council, needs no refutation. He had better titles to respect. He had a large share in civilizing his rude province. He interposed between the vengeance of the king and the ignorant multitude. He made himself popular and beloved where his predecessors had been murdered; and, for whatever other miracles he was canonized, for these benefits he deserved to live in the affectionate memory of his people as “Saint Gilbert.” His festival was celebrated on the first day of April. 

– Sketches, pp.70-85. 

1  Spottiswood, Keith, etc.

Another series of these charters is of some historical interest. It appears that, under the doubtful sovereignty of David II., during his English imprisonment, a certain Roger de Auldton founded a chantry in the church of St. James of Roxburgh, which he endowed with the lands of Softlaw in Teviotdale; and, on the same day apparently, granted two several charters regarding it; the one running – “for the soul’s weal of a most excellent prince, my lord David King of Scots;” the other, for the weal of “my lord King Edward of England.” These charters seem to have been each presented for confirmation to the sovereign commemorated in each; and a confirmation, engrossing Roger’s charter at length, bears to be granted by David “at Inverkeithin, in our council there held, on the first day of April, the year of our reign the twenty-fourth, and A.D. 1354;”1

– Sketches, pp.172-203. 

1  It is now well known, that in all documents after his return from England, the regnal years of David II. are stated one year short of the truth. These charters show that this discrepancy between the years of his reign and the years of our Lord, existed also some time before his return from captivity.

Apr. 1 [1565.] – The communion was administered in Edinburgh, and as it was near Easter, the few remaining clergy were on the alert, and seized the priest, Sir James Carvet, as he was coming from the house where he had officiated. Knox tells us with what an absurd degree of leniency the offender was treated. They ‘conveyed him,’ says he, ‘together with the master of the house, and one or two more of the assistants, to the Tolbooth, and immediately revested him with all his garments upon him, and so carried him to the Market Cross, where they set him on high, binding the chalice in his hand, and himself tied fast to the said Cross, where he tarried the space of one hour; during which time the boys served him with his Easter eggs. 

– Domestic Annals, pp.13-29.

Apr. 1 [1645.] – ‘This day, Kelso, with the haill houses, corns, barns, barn-yards, burnt by fire, caused by a clenging of ane of the houses thereof whilk was infected with the plague.’ – Hope’s Diary

– Domestic Annals, pp.257-277.

“1672, April 1. – We of the magistrand class now in the beginning of April concluded out lecturing. In order to prepare for the ensuing Laureation. All the scholars that designed to take their degrees assembled to assesse one another for defraying the expenses; chose collectors of the money assessed, and treasurers, whereof one was for the Scotts, and I for the English; and also stewards to provide gloves and the printing of the theses – one on white satin for the patron, and an appointed number on paper. My tutor would engage me to be the publick orator at the Laureation. I declined it, and earnestly begged his excuse, till I obtained it. But then he would not excuse my journey to Edinburgh to invite the grandees there to our Laureation; so that I went, furnished with gloves, and theses, which I first presented to the patron, the Laird of Colchun, upon white satin. I then waited upon the Archbishop of Glasgow, Dr. Leighton, at his chamber in the Colledge, whereof he had been formerly master. After presenting the service of our Colledge and Tutor, and invitation to our Laureation, I craved his acceptance of the theses, which he thankfully accepted; but presenting then the fine fringed gloves, he started back, and with all demonstrations of humility, excused himselfe as unworthy of such a present. I humbly urged his acceptance; he still retired backward, and I pursued him till he came to the end of the chamber, and at last prevailed. But it was amazing to see with what humble gratitude, bowing to the very ground, this great man accepted them. This was agreeable to his whole deportment at Glasgow, where the history of his deep humility might fill a volume…” 

– Sketches, pp.220-253.

On the 1st of April [1689] a parley was asked by beat of drum, during the funeral of Sir George Lockhart, who had been assassinated by Chiesley of Dalry, and whose remains were laid in the Greyfriars’ churchyard. Fresh troops now came in, under Lieutenant-Generals Sir John Lanier and James Douglas of Queensberry. 

Old and New Edinburgh, pp.47-66.

   “Sir, – We, William Prott, Michael Findlay and William Souter younger, all seamen and fishers in Burghead having communed with you as Factor for the Right Honourable James, Earl of Fife, anent our being bound to serve his Lordship as seamen and fishers in his new fisher town of Garmouth and having come to a resolution thereanent we hereby bind and oblige us conjunctly and severally and our heirs and successors to serve the said Earl well and honestly as seamen and fishers at the said port and fisher town of Garmouth for the space of seven years from and after the first day of Aprile next to come in this present year 1764 years and to provide so many others as shall make up a sufficient fishing crew to serve for the said space with us and on our terms and to pay to his Lordship yearly the said whole crew during the above space the sum of 100 merks Scots of rent at Whitsunday yearly beginning the first year’s payment at Whitsunday 1765 for the year immediately preceding and so on to continue in payment of the said yearly rent of 100 merks Scots at Whitsunday yearly during the said space of seven years or to make payment to the said Earl of such other higher yearly rent as the fishers of the shore of Buckie or other fishers in the neighbourhood pay to their masters with shore dues and other services… 


M. F.


Scots Lore, pp.223-226.

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